Category Archives: Age


Once said, not so long ago, that was done. My father’s son, I much preferred sitting to standing. Well, truth to tell, I never really “sat”. I sprawled. I was made for a sofa, but much preferred an Easy Chair, even one that might have held two of me; one that need climbing, up, into.

That we then. I notice it has become quite an undertaking to sit down recently. First I must gauge the chair’s height to determine if I can indeed sit down on, or into it; and then its depth from front to back. Or, is that not properly the length?

Is it a soft or a hard seat? These are questions of no small importance, my natural padding having gone into retirement several years ago. Sitting on my hands in some instances is the only way open for me.p

If the chair is arm less, poor thing, what are the aids nearby to assist me in a soft landing? My own aids, that is arms and legs, to assist me in a soft and safe one at not as dependable as earlier. I have in the recent past almost completely missed the target. It’s little comfort knowing I cannot miss the floor since I no longer bounce. And, if I am alone, regaining verticality, which may not be a word but you know what I mean, is no small project. I have crawled like a rubber boned infant the width of a room, the length of a hallway, to reach that dangerous posture.

It occurs to me that I should no longer attempt such daring expeditions as sitting down, on my own. That is unless I am met somewhere along my descent by a helping arm, and at its end by a soft landing. Oh, and something for my sore back between mine and the chair’s.

My Best Friend



When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx my best friend was Eddie.  He was so much a part of my life that I would tell my parents and my sister and brother each evening at supper what Eddie had done and what he had said during the day.  So detailed and so intense were these stories of our daily adventures and Eddie’s leading role in them that my father began to call my friend Eddie Sez’; primarily because of the wisdom I believed Eddie possessed about all thing “Kid”.


He came from a family of six children, four boys and two girls.  In my family we were three, two boys, and one girl.  Of course we had parents.  My father was a letter carrier, once known as a mailman, and my mother was a House Wife, once a profession, now not.


Eddie and the rest of his family lived in a ground floor apartment in the front of our apartment house.  It was a six story walk up, built in an age, somewhere around 1920, when anything less than ten floors was thought unnecessary to require an elevator.  Eddie’s apartment facing the front looked out on the street, Bailey Avenue, which, when I was a child, was the longest and broadest street in the civilized world, cobblestones paving its length and breadth, and trolley tracks bisecting it.  Perhaps as many as twenty times a day, cars would whiz by bound outward to the world.  And in the evening, cars would line the street at great intervals.  Some of them were even locked and their windows were rolled up.


On the other side of the street, looking west to the edge of the world, a plateau spread in both directions for dozens of yards before falling off down to the tracks of the Grand Central railroad, whose Northern Division ran north to the pole for all I knew, and filled the air with the sound and smoke of “industry” and “commerce”, from its long freight trains and huge black belching engines. We kids all loved playing down in the railroad yard, walking along the tracks, and on top of the third rail; throwing the stones used as ballast at rats, cats and birds and at the long lumbering freight cars on the trains moving in and out of the city almost every day.  Eddie could throw a stone further than most of the kids I hung around with.  But, he stayed away from the third rail stuff.


That was because Eddie’s father who we learned was named Barney, or, sometimes, “Star”, used to work for that railroad until, in the legendary past, he was injured jumping from a locomotive to the ground at the end of a long day.  Eddie told us he hit the third rail.  The injury resulted in a weakness and palsy which was with him for the rest of his life; a life he spent at the window of his living room with a pitcher of beer to hand staring out at the world going by.  He never stopped his shaking hands unless he was taking a mouthful of beer.  All the kids in the neighborhood came to know him as “Shaky”.


Frail and bent, Shaky would walk from his house to the corner tavern each morning, The Kingsbridge Tavern, owned by Angie, a little man whose head barely cleared the level of the bar when he stood behind ready to pour; and once there, Shaky H., for that was his name, would buy himself a quart container of beer from the tap.  He may have been Angie’s first customer every day.  And, firmly and steadily clutching the newly poured container to himself, Shaky would walk home, enter his apartment and take up his seat.  Once or twice more each day he would repeat this appointed round in all kinds of weather, faithful to the work.


Eddie’s mother was a tall and quiet woman.  I don’t think I ever knew her given name.  She was always Mrs. H., and is still when I think of her.  All of the women were known that way, by their married names.  They were Mrs. Lastname, even when we were grown.  And the men were Mister.  And, except that my father used Eddie’s father’s name and unless I had heard him using it in his conversations with my mother, I would never have known Barney “Star” H.’s full name.  Mrs. H., whom I cannot remember seeing outside the house, would sometimes lean out of her kitchen window and exchange the news of the day with some of the other mothers who might come outside with toddlers and children not yet in school.  The street was our playground, the curbstones our toilets, because when tiny, going back upstairs, three, four or five flights of them, was not only difficult but hazardous.  Anything could happen.


We lived on the same side of the house as Eddie, in the back.  Our windows faced a wooden fence, erected we kids thought, by someone who hated kids.  Because beyond that fence was a vacant lot full of weeds and wild flowers, rocks and stones and sand.  Like any vacant space to a bunch of kids, it was a perfect place to play.  And since it was a playground, the only one at all in the neighborhood, the fence never stayed up for too long a time.


Every day in all kinds of weather this area, which came to be known simply as The Lot, was the venue for all sorts of games; from a form of baseball, played with regular balls and bats all the way to wads of newspaper or clods of earth as balls and tree branches, sticks and hollow cardboard tubes if nothing else was handy, as bats, to the kind of ordered chaos that is known by all the kids I’ve ever known as, simply, Play.  There were names, of course, and rules, boundaries, sides and positions.  There was everything the world above us required for the danger and drudgery of “work”!  When playing with the girls, one of whose games to play was called House, boys were always “going to work”.  This involved leaving the girls and going away…somewhere.


We also played war.  We even had a navy of sorts in the form of two large rocks in The Lot, way over in deep left field.  One, named K-880, could be a submarine, a battleship, a troop carrier, a swift destroyer or anything one wished it to be, and sometimes more than one type of vessel.  Very rarely, it was a tank.  The other one, named Flat Rock, was always an aircraft carrier…or a place to sit and eat lunch between games.


On the other side of The Lot, at the crest of a small slope, was Heath Avenue.  That was where The Heathies lived.  They were ancient enemies.  One was born hating the Heathies, though not as much as one hated The Crescents, all of whom were savages and probably cannibals.  War against The Crescents, who lived near the firehouse a few blocks away, had always been going on since first the earth was cool enough to walk on.


I learned, as I grew older that the Heathies and Crescents were called such because they lived on Heath Avenue and on Albany Crescent.  And, I went to school with several of them.


I don’t remember when we actually met, Eddie and I, and became friends, but I am pretty sure it took place when we were both very young fellows, perhaps toddlers.  So, it can be said with some truth that we knew each other in fact before we were really grown to consciousness.  Eddie, when I was so very young, before school began, was a part of my life; as much I suppose as my brother and sister, my parents and certainly more than the other relatives I saw, none of whom lived near enough to walk to for a visit.  And, I grew up when walking was the primary means of locomotion in the city for folks like us; walking or the bus or trolley.


Eddie was older than me by almost a year, and taller, better looking and leaner.  He was also more naturally athletic, excelling at the games we played like baseball, football, stickball, and basketball, in the playground the city built when we got older.  Until that time came, though, we had other games; games of our own invention like Running Through and Best Faller and Tarzan.  These we played while forming our skill and talent for more complicated games with rules and boundaries and positions.  Rules, by the way, were great occasions for arguments which sometimes lasted longer than the game itself, and often led to simply tossing the game aside in favor of something more active than yelling.


Running Through was a version of football.  When there weren’t enough kids to field two decent sized teams, we would play Running Through; a game where one guy with the football would try to run through, around, over, or dig under, all the rest of us without losing the ball or breaking anything.  We all took turns running through.  And, it had the advantage of having no rules.


Best Faller was another game, a war game.  We played that game by attacking a “machine gun” nest occupied by The Japs or Nazis, or both.  Everyone rotated through the nest and killed the attacking GI’s usually running downhill at breakneck speed (literally).  The best faller in each attack got to attack again with the next group while the others, eliminated, sat on the sidelines and screamed.  There were no real winners.  It was simply a game where we all got dirty, and tired, and yelled while thinking about war and glory, glory and war.  Danny Valuzzi was always a gunner. He was the only guy with a real toy rifle.  The rest of us had broomsticks which were also spears, or stickball bats.


The city’s playground and a public school, PS 122, ended our games of Tarzan.  They filled in the lot we used for it.  And that was because it was a good twenty feet lower than the surrounding terrain.  Tarzan was played on swings of rope, dumb waiter ropes we had taken from the dumb waiters and tied to branches on the trees reaching out over the depressed ground that was Tarzan’s, a watery tangle of weeds, garter snakes, mosquitoes and salamanders, mud and most forms of urban debris.  We would swing out over this primeval mess and see how far we could go and safely fall into the muddy mess below; without drowning or breaking something.


We also hunted for snakes and salamanders in the good weather, bringing them home to live in the bathtub or kitchen sink…for a while.


Eddie was good at all the games with certain exceptions.  He didn’t like to play the kind of things we played across the street in Tarzan’s.  I also don’t remember much his presence in the hikes we took, walking up the railroad tracks to Van Cortlandt Park a couple of miles away and hunting for snakes and squirrels and frogs and other stuff that really interested kids. Snake hunting was fun, but hunting squirrels with stones we had taken from the railroad was the best fun.  I got pretty good at knocking a squirrel of a branch high in a tree.


But, I had to be careful to empty my pockets before entering the home.  My mother, if she found stones in them would know that I had been out, and probably far away, hunting some small animal with my friends, and, of course, walking on the railroad tracks where I could get killed at any moment.  I never gave that much thought, though.  Kids, before the age of ten or twelve probably don’t give anything much thought.  At least we didn’t.  We just did, or didn’t do what came to mind; and when we were finished with that, we did something else.



As I said, Eddie was a good athlete, an excellent pitcher, with a good fastball and a mean curve, whether throwing an old tennis ball, a “spaldeen” during stickball games, or even basketball when we played, under the watchful eye of the “Parkie”, the guy who handed out equipment and kept the brooms and stuff in the Parkie’s House just inside the entrance to the playground.


The Parkie also ordered us off the swings, basketball backboards, slides, wire fences and other stuff we shouldn’t be climbing on or jumping off; though he could only do that when the park was open.


We were growing older and becoming bolder; doing risky and dangerous things. For instance, we went swimming in the Harlem and Hudson rivers; at that time little more than open sewers.  Mothers warned us not to go swimming in those places because if we did we would surely get Polio and die or drown.  And so, we developed the habit of opening a fire hydrant and taking a cleansing bath before going home.  Of course, there were times when no amount of water would remove the brackish smell, and we got a beating.


I never saw Eddie in the water, anywhere.  He never swam in the Harlem, or the Hudson river; never took the bus with a bunch of us to Orchard Beach in the summer, so we could get a layer or two of skin burned off, or swam in Charlie’s Hole, little more than a mud puddle in Vanny, our name for Van Cortlandt Park.


But I gave it no thought.  He was my “best friend”, not my only friend.  And then something happened.


One day, it was just Eddie and me.  We were playing in the Foundies, an old construction site on our block that consisted of the crumbling remains of an apartment house that never got further than the basement.  My mother would have killed me if she knew I was there.  The previous summer I’d cracked my skull open falling from one of the walls, and the year before that, I’d nearly burned my big toe off playing with some railroad flares that Danny McGrath, an older kid, had and was sharing with me to celebrate July 4th.


Anyway, Eddie and I were doing something when we were joined by a “little kid”.  Little Kids were the ones “coming up”, the next generation, the rookies, anywhere from three to five years younger than us.  This was one of them, some boy from another apartment house on the block who wanted to play with us.  Eddie knew him and suggested we play “war” and he would be our prisoner.  Now, this usually meant that the prisoner had to do whatever we told them and try to escape.  And here things started to go bad, really scary bad.  The kid did “escape” and Eddie chased him down, brought him back to the “prison” and dumped him on the ground.  Then he told the kid to take off all his clothes so he couldn’t escape again.  The kid started to cry, and Eddie just got mad at him, took off his shirt and pants and threw them over a wall.  The kid stood there in his shoes and underpants and cried.


Eddie had never gotten mad, never lost his temper, never went ballistic.  I was the one who did that.


I was getting scared, too, because my friend was really angry with this kid, who was wailing.  “Let’s get out of here,” I said, because we were going to get in trouble.  And, getting in trouble was as bad as things could be when you were about ten years old.  Eddie listened to me and decided to leave but warned the kid not to tell anyone. Then we left.


Of course, it took the kid about ten minutes to get himself back together and tell his mother what and who.  Not too much longer after that my father found me out in front of our house and dragged me inside, where he took off everything I had on and beat me until he got too tired to swing the razor strap.  He didn’t speak to me for a few weeks after that.  My mother dragged me over to the kid’s house by my hair and made me apologize to him and his parents.  Then she dragged me back home and threw me into the bathroom where I would probably have stayed for a week or two if we had another bathroom in the house.


It was not the worst thing I have ever done, but it is the thing I remember most vividly.


I didn’t see Eddie for a while.  As a matter of fact, I was forbidden from hanging around with him.  That too passed, and Eddie and I re-joined the kids, picking up where we had left off.


We were getting older, and noticing more.  One of the things we were noticing was the presence of girls.  They had, of course been there all along, with doll carriages, and jumping ropes and other stuff.  But, up until recently we had considered them merely obstacles, things like stray cats to be run off.  Now, we didn’t mind them so much at all.  They were nice to look at, and, sometimes, even fun to talk to.


There was no pairing off quite yet.  But when it came, and come it did a year or so later, my friend Eddie was among the first chosen.  He was, I suppose, what could be called an “Alpha Male”.  And, the girl who picked him was every bit his match.  Her name was Barbara.  They stayed a “couple” for several years, I think; so much so that even some of the mothers began to expect they would marry some day.


It was not to be, though.  And, it had to have been Eddie’s fault.  As he grew older, and entered his teens he began to change, as did we all.  But there was a difference, I think, sitting now a million years away from the places and events.  Eddie did not seem to want to be the kind of kid the rest of us were, do the kind of things we did, nor play, any more, the games we played.  We saw less of him. And that began at around the time of our very short and losing war with our implacable enemy The Crescents.


Who can remember the reason most wars have started?  Do they need a reason, after all?  All I knew is that we were going to fight the Crescents, a big, dangerous tribe of tough guys.  On the day of the fight, which took place in a lot at the end of our block, they sent their best, about thirty fierce and “plug-ugly” guys whose knuckles dragged and weapons clanked.  We managed to muster eight guys, and the only “weapon” we had was a paddle ball paddle, like a thin plywood racquet ball paddle, only flimsier.


We were destroyed.  Eddie took no part in the combat.  And the only reason he gave me when I asked him was that he didn’t want to get dirty.


I’ve never been able to figure that out.


When high school came, Eddie went off to De Witt Clinton, a city school, and most of us went to one or another of the five or six thousand Catholic High Schools in the city.


We saw each other from time to time, and we spoke from time to time, but there was less in common than there had been; and I never could tell why it was so.  The legal age for drinking at that time in New York was 18, and with my friends I took full advantage of it.  As a matter of fact, we had been taking advantage for several years; training for the “big event” so to speak, in the same way kids have been doing it since forever I guess.  Eddie never did.  He played elsewhere at another game, a game I never learned.


It must have been in my senior year, waiting for graduation, when I ran into Eddie early one morning.  The sun wasn’t long up and I was headed home from Toolan’s, a bar, one of a half million in the neighborhood.  I ran into him just outside the door to our apartment; he leaving and me coming in.  We smiled and spoke briefly.  He had left school, he said, at the beginning of the year, and was looking for work somewhere.  I don’t remember what he said he was looking to do.  And, then we continued on our separate ways.


A few months earlier one or two of the fellows I hung around with had told me about a party they were going to.  It was at an apartment in another neighborhood, Washington Heights, a few miles south of us across the river in Manhattan.  It might as well have been in Lapland.  I stayed home.  But, afterwards they told me I had missed a great time.  The girls at the party were unlike any of the girls we knew.  And, Eddie was there, they told me.  He was especially there with one of the girls.


I saw him only once more after that story about the girl with whom he was at the party; the girl I later learned was carrying his child.  He looked sad, and older, much older.  I don’t remember what we said, what we talked about.  I just remember that it was the last time I saw him, already an old man.  I wish I could, but I don’t remember our last conversation, or where he went when we parted.


He just drifted away.


The last thing I heard about my best friend Eddie was that he was working as a porter and utility man in an apartment house in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, and had married the woman he had gotten pregnant.


That was more than 60 years ago.


This is a short tail of innocence, generosity, failure and misplaced trust.  It isn’t unusual at all.  She was my grandmother, my father’s mother and her parent’s child who dreamed big dreams; the kind so many do.  She told me stories about them; about another world where was kindness and woe in turn.  I listen to them now from time to time, remembering the little girl running home from school, laughing at the cows and the clouds, singing her songs and saying her prayers.

I remember a day not so long ago, different than this dark morning after Mass in the almost empty church across the river.  There my mind, which wanders I guess in the same way old minds will wander, filling every quiet minute with memories, I was taken to another recent morning.  This one was ever so slightly different; a memory of memories:

It’s cold again, somewhere in the twenties, and the ice has returned to the river; rushing down past the house like a stampede of cattle.  It is the kind of cold that covered everything in an ice blanket on the day we buried Katie.

The day was bright, the air still.  Now, on the same kind of day here at home one small woodpecker feeds at the newly installed squirrel proof suet feeder which hangs above the last few piles of fallen snow just outside our big living room window; the one that sold me on the place when we first walked in.  And, our two heavy metal chimes near the feeder keep it company with the music they make courtesy of some mischievous little currents in the air.

It’s Saturday morning, but it might as well be any day for all the difference inside the house another day will make.  I can hear myself breathe  As birds fly by, ice flows by and chimes ring softly in the slight breeze.

Just a while ago, reading some book or other…it makes no difference which…I put it down to think about something that had bubbled up from deep storage somewhere in my head.  I had read a few short messages on Face Book, a thing I still haven’t decided is a good thing, not too long ago.  Someone had brought up the subject of “An Gorta Mor”; the Great Hunger, The Irish Famine nearly two centuries ago, and what a devastating thing it was.  Who cannot agree!?

My mind dwelt on that, and my grandmother, my father’s mother, Catherine Ann Fanning, who was born a generation after the famine ended, one of six children who lived on a little farm, whose parents were tenants, in Leighlinbridge, Cty. Carlow, Ireland.

The town is on the River Barrow,  a stream just about the same size as the river I can see from the window now with its panes of ice, some almost large enough to scrape both banks as they cruise by like crystal aircraft carriers.  The first time I saw the Barrow I didn’t realize I was looking at it since from what I heard of it from my grandmother I had pictured it as a raging monster.  Swans swam quietly in a placid little stream between well groomed banks.  Mothers walked with their little children along a tree lined path while old folks sat reading the Irish Times or some other sheet.  I was, frankly disappointed, and thought it merely another Irish Fiction; something I was more than used to, and something I have often made use of myself.  What harm can it do, a little embellishment, a playful grace note or two, some improvisation, some tampering with the facts, I hear them all saying.

I didn’t see it again until another, more recent, trip where I met a cousin from Dublin.  I remember looking at the same tranquil stream from a hilltop on the other side as he pointed out to me fields and pastures now owned by Irish farmers which were once the property of Lord Bagenal, the English “nobleman” whose lands they were when he allowed my grandmother’s family to live there and work for him.

For all of my youth, and in all of her stories, my Grandmother referred to her home, the part of Ireland where she lived and from which she left at the age of sixteen to come to America and pick gold up from the streets, as Bagenalstown, or Leighlinbridge, two names for two close but separate places, owned by one family, the Bagenals, who had lived there for a few centuries, and had become Protestants to keep holding on.

I suspect that changed after the Irish became their own again, but, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a Bagenal lad or lass, tyke or dam, who ate grass, or picked through the cattle’s crap for a stray seed, during those four long years.

As my cousin and I stood on the rise across the river and looked at the fields between the two little towns, the square bell tower of the Church of Ireland rising behind us, he pointed out where his grandmother, and mine, her sister would have lived, in some ramshackle grass thatched smoke filled hovel, and taken care of another man’s land and livestock, and fortunate to do so.  He pointed out the whole lovely expanse and said, his voice a mixture of sadness and anger, “It’s ours now, that was ours long ago.”  He drove a nice Mercedes, so I am not too sure what he meant by the remark.  But, I do know that the family is in real estate; his side.

The gold my grandmother believed she would pick off the streets once she got off the ship, was a fiction.  And, she spent the rest of her life working in one laundry or another, before she died, having gone quite mad, in a home far away from the home she never saw again.

I loved her, and love her still, and it’s more than almost all the years she was alive since she died alone among strangers.  Died, no doubt, thinking she was home again; Catherine Ann Fanning of Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Ireland.

Now, she is.  Now, she is.

And, I am with her, running those fields, laughing at slow clouds, slower cows, and the sparkling river flowing to the sea.

Dead and Dying: Something for Lent

This is about two things; what used to happen and what I think is happening.

I was very young when I attended my first wake; young enough so that all I remember of it is that I was in a forest of legs, legs with faces somewhere up there in the distance, and voices flying overhead.  They were making words, I knew, but I couldn’t make sense of them.  It seemed as if everyone was simply saying, “Noise!”  Everyone, that is except old ladies on chairs with sad and tired faces who were saying soft things in whispers as they moved the beads through their hands.  I looked at them with the open and intense stare of the young child, the child who hasn’t yet learned discretion and dissembling.  They looked at me in the same way; their eyes unshielded by age.

Perhaps my most specific memory of that evening is of seeing a massive pair of shoes at the bottom of a staircase.  They were the shoes of my Grand Uncle Bill Fanning, brother of my grandmother, my father’s mother Catherine Fanning Gallaher from Leighlin Bridge, Carlow, Ireland.

At some point during that evening of legs and loud talk, everything grew quiet, and all over the place people got shorter in the legs.  They were on their knees, and saying words I knew were prayers because I had heard them from all the other people, the older ones I lived with.  We prayed for an eternity, following the lead of the man in front, Father Someone.  And, when the prayers were over, we left and went home on the subway.  I slept. It was quieter.

I do not know whose wake I was at.  I only remember legs, big shoes and noise.  It may have been Uncle Bill’s, since I never saw him after that, and Grandma, who was given to prayer several times a day, became more involved in her “office”.  She wanted her brother in heaven, and it was the best of things to do; to pray him all the help she thought he needed.  Never giving up

She never did.  Besides her brother,  she had a big family back across the water, and a sister here, too with five sons, and they all needed praying for.

Several years after that incident I attended my first Funeral Mass.  My mother’s mother, whom I loved, had died.  I knew she was sick because I’d overheard conversations at night in the kitchen, and my mother on the phone to her sister.  Then I was told to dress one cold gray morning for Mass. Nanny was being buried.  I rode in the back of the long black car between my mother and my aunt.  My sister may have been in the car with me, or she may have been staying at home with our neighbors.  I cannot remember.  My brother was there.

I cried.

The only thing I remember about the Mass beyond my first feelings of loss and sadness was the silence, broken occasionally by mournful music, as if the organ was weeping too; and the people singing sad songs for me and my family and my grandmother in the coffin in the front.  Everyone was in black, and everyone was sad, too.  Everyone prayed.  I even saw rosary beads in the hands of the men who moved then one at a time as they slowly went through the silent mysteries, silently.  What I remember most is the deep echoing silence in the church.  I used to think that church was huge, and that when silent the whole world was silent, too. Like that day.  My mother told me to pray for my grandmother, and always to remember her when I prayed.

I have no memories beyond the silence and sadness, being urged to pray for Nanny to help her to heaven, and my tears.

Georgie Masters mother hung herself one afternoon and died tied to the curtain rod in their bathroom.  Georgie and his sister Eileen stayed with us for three days.  Then on the third day, their father came to get them to take them to St. John’s, the big church, for the funeral.  We rode along with them behind the hearse carrying a lady I didn’t know much about. Because it was the way of it, I prayed for her silently in the silent car, and in the silent church where a pin drop would sound like a cannon’s roar, I thought.  Silent except for the quiet whispers of prayers being said for Mrs. Masters, that her Purgatory not be long, and that God be good to her.

We walked back from that Mass to our house.  Mr. Masters held my hand when we crossed Broadway underneath the El.  His hand was warm, and bigger than my father’s.  He had a long black overcoat one and wore a black hat.  We got back home and George and Eileen left with their father.  I could take you today, with my eyes closed, to the spot where I stood in the hallway of our apartment as they left the house.  I still pray for Mrs. Masters, but I suspect the prayers are put in someone else’s account.  She was a woman in pain.

I have been to perhaps a dozen funerals of men, police officers and federal agents, who have died in the line of duty, and one or two priests, too, called home after long years of work in the vineyard.  In the former cases, hundreds, at times thousands of their brothers lined the streets outside, and stood silently until the funeral ended.  In the latter, the loudest noise at the beginning and end was the tolling of a single bell.  A single bell.  A reminder to pray, to remember, to pray.

Their names, now, I can’t remember. What is with me still, though, are the days and places, the long blue lines outside, the robed priests about the altar inside and the silence, reverent, respectful silence.  These, like works in a gallery, frame my prayers, some of whom I knew well, some not at all.  But all I keep in my prayers, years on, like my grandmother at her beads.

We provide the music at funerals in one of the parishes here in town.  Some of the people, not a few in fact, who find out what we do recoil at knowing that’s how we spend some of our time.  “Eeewww!  Funerals!”  “How does that make you feel?”  “It must be dreadful.”   These are the kind of things we often hear from folks we tell about our work.

Well, sometimes…  But, then, there are other things.

Not too long ago we worked at the funeral of a person, a woman who I am told was a nice lady.  Well, no one wants to speak ill..  And I will not, myself.

As with most funerals we attend and provide music for, so was this one peopled with a number of people who appeared to me as if they had just wandered in off the street, or had indeed come to a funeral, but had no idea at all what exactly that meant, or why it was taking place.

I mean, in the latter case those folks might have been thinking  something like this about that: “Duh, Jimmy, she’s dead isn’t she; a bunch of ash in the little gray pot Uncle Bilge just brought in?  What’s the point?”  And indeed it may have been,and probably is,the prevailing frame of mind for some who “happen by” these things; little more than a quiet place to check for messages; or to catch up with someone not seen since the last party.

“Yeah, I feel sad Uncle Bob is dead.  But, look, I ain’t worked since I got the news he was dying last week.  I was gonna visit but, like, I was too busy.  Besides, we were comped at the new casino in Revere for two days.  Yeah, outta sight!.  Don’t matter, really.  He’s dead now.  Just a minute, I gotta check this message.  By the way, you going out with me and Davey on Friday, The Rotten Tomatoes are playing at The Scalded Duck.  They got this new beer they’re promoting that tastes like sour apples with a pickle nose and burnt shirt finish.”

Most of them, the bereaved we used to call them, on this morning stood at the front, at the foot of the altar in a sloppy group talking loudly while we sang some prologues before Mass. (Yes it is still a Mass, folks, though it is more often referred to as a service, as if what was inside the box or the coffin was a device to be worked on by the Gook Squad or a car needing a tune up.)

They chattered the things one chatters before a funeral these days: About how long it has been since they’ve seen each other.  About, whether or not Auntie May is as crazy as she dresses these days.  “Did you see that thing she’s wearing?”  About how the Red Sox or the Bruins or the Patriots are doing.  New cars.  Old cars.  Vacations and, recently, tattoos, or “ink” or “tats” as they seem now to be called.  There were some in evidence on the legs and bare arms of the younger women who attended; though none were on their faces…yet.

Not long after that, we were called to provide music for a young man who had died suddenly.  He left two or three young children behind, I do not remember the total number, along with his girlfriend, as she was styled in the obituary.  He was lauded as a wonderful father to the children, who played with them, and was always good for a laugh, leaving them happy they had seen him.

His mourners included a number of fellows who appeared in their “colors”, filling two rows at the back of the church, and reminding me of bears in a cage.

A few weeks before this, maybe a month, I heard, his brother had died.  Suddenly, as the saying goes.

Yesterday we were present for the final rites of an old woman, mother, grandmother and, I think great-grandmother, and several days ago it was another old man.  Dark clothes filled the pews, and quiet.  Only one or two children were among each congregation of mourners gathered to say farewell.

This morning another old man who died quietly at home, followed by a bundle of relatives, dark and quiet, was wheeled in his casket to the altar for the final rites.

I find myself wondering about the things I see from my post up in the choir loft, and what is happening, and I cannot really think that what is happening is good.

Myself?  I am I know no better than anyone below me, probably worse off than most.  But, being present at twenty or thirty of these “celebrations” each year has not convinced me that I am.

And, is that a bad thing? At least, I find it “wonderfully focuses the mind.”   We of course have life.  We forget the other three things.

In Paradisum

We’re Upstairs…

We’re upstairs the other day in the little room at the back of the house.  Just me and her.  We catch a show on the tube.  I can’t remember what the hell it is.  It doesn’t matter.

When it’s over she says she’s going downstairs to take care of some business and maybe we’ll catch another show in time.  Fine, I figure as I follow her down.  We’ll reassemble in a while.

I tell her I have a couple of things to do myself.  I say I have a wash to do.  I’m downstairs now saying this.  The clothes hamper is in our bedroom. The bedroom is directly above where I am saying this.  Upstairs.

She goes into the family room where I had left the vacuum cleaner a couple of hours earlier.  The day before I figured I would vacuum downstairs on this day, so I’d gotten the thing out of the closet early in the morning.

Her desk is there, and she sits at it to do…whatever.  I see the vacuum and remember what it is there for.

I turn around and leave, walk down the short hall to the stairs and begin to mount them.

Then I stop a few steps up.  I just stop.  And I think, or try to think, why am I climbing the stairs?  Oh, I think finally, I’m going upstairs to vacuum.  But then I think I can’t remember if the vacuum is upstairs, or still in the closet.  No, I remember, it is in the family room where I put it only a little while ago.

And, I turn to go and get it.

As I reach the bottom of the stairs and begin to walk down the little hall to the family room to get the vacuum I remember the wash I said I wanted to do.

I stop, turn and return to the stairs, climb them to our bedroom, get the hamper, take it to the basement and start the clothes washing.

I spend a lot more time on the stairs than I used to.

The floors got vacuumed after the wash was done.  We got together a bit later in the day and watched another show.

Kevin In The Morning

The voice on the other end of the line is deep and has a thick very authentic Brooklyn, New York accent.   “Hi, Kevin, ” I say.  and he booms back in his inimitable fashion, “Pete!  How Ya doing?”

How long has it been?  Five years? Ten years?  More?  I am not sure.  But, really, no time has passed.  We are together by phone, and nothing has separated us.  He mentions the time we arrested John Yancy, a black dope peddler, in Harlem one cool evening, and he carried him down several flights of stairs, dumping him in the back of the car, and, as an ominous crowd gathers, urges me to “Get the hell outta here!”  That was back in the late ’60’s when cops were getting shot not too far away, and two white guys “kidnapping” one black guy did not look like something which should be done without a battalion of black clad troops and a few tanks.  But, what did we know?

I remember the sunny afternoon on First Avenue when he clotheslined some guy running away from us and I, chasing him, stepped on his head just as he hit the ground.  Someone else scooped him from the street, threw him into the car just pulling up, and we all piled in on top, driving off while the well dressed folks stopped and gaped, trying to figure out what had just happened to their world. It took about ten seconds, after we’d been watching and waiting for about two hours.

Today, they’d have roped off Midtown and evacuated all the people.  helicopters would be all over the place, sirens day and night, searchlights, stun grenades, smoke bombs.  After a day or so the guy would give up, and MSNBC would break down the set and go off somewhere else for continuous coverage of another disaster, catastrophe, chariot race or what all.

What did we know?

“Where are you?  What are you doing, now,” I ask.  He’s down in Georgia, Brunswick, GA, to be exact, the only Catholic surrounded by Baptists for miles around.  “I gotta be careful on Sunday, Pete,” he says.  “I gotta be careful going out to mow the lawn and have a beer.  All them eyes on me.”  I give him the name of another fellow, another Irishman, another Catholic who has to be careful in the same way down there, and tell him to get in touch.  This guy is from Indiana, a Bobby Knight fan, an old prosecutor.  They’ll get along I say to myself.

This guy got his picture on the cover of some magazine years ago after he made a big deal case.  His boss was on the cover, too, which is strange because his boss didn’t think the case was the right kind of thing to spend time on.  Matter of fact, no one but him and one lone guy in the IRS wanted the case made.  Until it was made.  Then the defendant pays a $500,000.00 fine from their petty change account, and walks out the door.  See what I mean?

What did he know?

Then Kevin says something serious to me.  “I was working for the Children’s Court, Pete.  The judge down here was an ex-FBI agent.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  All these kids coming in raped by their uncles, their older brothers, and nobody’s doing a damn thing about it.  You know?,”   He says, “I wanted to grab a few of them and give them a beating.  I had to leave.  There was one girl who kept having kids, one a year.  She gives them up for foster care, but makes a living out of the money she gets when she’s pregnant.  And, no one does a thing about it.  Don’t talk to me about foster care, either.  That’s a racket, and no one cares.”  As he talks I’m thinking about another guy I used to know in one of the sheriff’s offices up here in Cow Hampshire, from some place like Alabama originally; another good guy.

The first time I meet him is in this big office in the new county courthouse, not too far from the county jail, and he’s surrounded by boxes and boxes of smut; evidence in a case against a guy who…; well I’ll leave all that alone. He tells me that his office sees this kind of stuff more than anything else.  He’s sick of it and wishes he could get lost in a nice murder case, or some boat owner smuggling dope in from a mother ship off the coast.  But, there’s only one other detective in the whole department.

Back in the present, I’m listening to Kevin going on about life down South; about him and his wife Judy, and his little dog; about how he goes for walks along the beach, and talks to the folks he meets, and nets shrimp from the shore.  “Pete, they’re the biggest juiciest shrimp you ever ate!  They’re great!”, he rumbles.

I’m smiling as he says goodbye, and we promise to call and stay in touch, and love each other forever.  I have a picture in my mind of Kevin about forty years ago in the middle of some street in Brooklyn where we spent four days and nights back then waiting for a shipment of heroin from Spain to leave the dock so we could follow it and arrest the rats who smuggled the stuff here.  There’s Kevin in the morning.  It’s early, and it’s cool and the sun is bright, the sky is blue and clear.  He has a football in his big hand, and the rest of us are down the street.

What did we know?

I Will Lose More Weight (for JFM)

(Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur)

I will lose more weight, growing down as I grew up.
Then I will die in my front room in the early afternoon
While an old woman walks by and sees me fall.
She will walk on and tell no one at all.

I will have the time while I am falling to dwell at last
On what I have done and what I failed to do
Before I crumple and begin
The process of my wasting.

Outside the window through which old women look
I will see falling just before I fall my old friend
Whose heart gave out as he in his turn fell, oh too soon!
One morning among strangers on the way to work.

They stood by watching, remembering what they saw
To tell the ladies, gathered like the end of harvest straw,
In the evening over drinks and dinner.
They would gasp and clutch each others white arms;

“Such things chill and shouldn’t be said
Before we have sent the children up to bed,”
They will whisper fearfully, and just as fearfully will ask,
“What else then happened on the way to work?”

Closer to the end of all my lifelong falling I will watch
Every sunset and smile at every crystal raindrop
And hear the last laugh burst from the lips
Of the one who thinks he got away with all of it.

I will have finished falling then and begin
My rest and decomposition, leaving
Nothing that I brought in, but my slippers,
And for my son my favorite shirt.

I, I must, have my last thoughts, there
On the floor beneath the window and the woman
The pictures on the wall the light fixture
In the hall by the door I opened once

To you standing on the granite step,
Timid in your summer clothes, questions
On your face not asked or answered
In all those years since we had parted.

We ate a pretty lunch in the shade of ancient oaks
And spoke lightly of the heaviness of age
On trees and people we both knew and have known;
Inconsequential words off the top of our heads,

Thoughts subliming into a slight breeze
Hardly worth the effort to give them voice
While little brown wrens whistled on a limb
And the neighbor’s dog across the street

Beat its head against the chain link fence;
Frustrated again by a laughing squirrel.
Your wife looked at the roses and mine
Took away the dishes from our meal.

Once again you stood outside the house.
Stood on the steps.  Moved to the car.
Complained about the aches assailing you,
Assailing both of us, as I listened

From a surprising distance in so short a time
To your hearty laugh, your thanks for
The meal and conversation, your promises to return
Again and soon and your final goodbye.